Class or Career: Who you are or what you want to
Hello fellow players. A month ago [LINK] we talked about the difference between random stat generation and point-buy systems. Tonight I hope to shed some light on the next major issue of character creation: choosing a class or creating a career. Class-based systems are linked to traditional wargaming. Career systems were designed as a way of addressing some of the issues inherent in class-based systems. Just as I did last month, I will look at both approaches and discuss how they affect us as players.
Whether you’re talking about social classes or the object classes of computer programing, a “class” is simply a group of things that share common attributes. In roleplaying games, a character class focuses on key abilities which are tied to attributes, or stats. For example: a “fighter” class focuses on things like strength and stamina, while a “scientist” class would focus on intelligence or perception, etc. Your class also determines your core abilities, and dictates the path your character will follow as they advance progressively over the course of play. Everything on this path is linked, in order to ensure that the character can carry out the core purposes of their character class. This leads to ease of character definition, as you are constrained to work within your class as a concept. However, because a class is really just a grouping of common attributes, you may feel that your options are somewhat limited. Characters tend to begin their careers at a relatively young age in class-based systems, and experience is very important for your character’s growth.
The classic class-based system remains D&D. This is still true after 40 years, no matter the edition, because it is a great system for teaching people how to roleplay. The direct approach of the D&D system allows players to quickly grasp what their character can and cannot do in the game. With a limited number of choices, character creation and advancement are simple and to the point.
A career is a lifetime pursuit, and career systems often walk players through much of the life of the character. Career systems often provide characters with a predetermined set of abilities which are linked to their career, and then set the players free to advance from there in any way they choose. One famous career system is Call of Cthulhu.
Most of the time, career systems are linked to skill-based mechanics, and provide a wide variety of skills and options to choose from. There is nothing prohibiting you from choosing a mix of unusual skills and past career phases, and this rich collection of facts enables you to create a uniquely-detailed background for your character. As a result, career systems often produce characters who start the game older, compared to class-based characters. In some career systems, the longer you stay in character generation, the more skills and abilities your character picks up. In the first edition of the famous Traveller character generation system, characters could even die during generation (and often did)! The system also covered aging during CharGen, gradually decreasing the stats of older characters. Both of these rules prevented skill inflation by persuading players to end character generation early.
Because career-based characters often have a number of high ranked skills at the start of play, the experience systems in these games are less important and they’re often quite stingy, relatively speaking. Characters who begin play with a career already behind them are more ready to jump straight into some bigtime action, rather than having to build up to it. If career-based systems are action movies, class-based systems are biographies.
Besides these common approaches, there are two more we should discuss: Templates and Coming-of-Age systems. In the former, we have a set of templates that work like pregenerated careers, including class-like abilities. Players only need to come up with a background associated with those abilities, and they’re ready to begin playing. Coming-of-Age systems provide characters with a career path, as found in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay or Burning Wheel. Looking at the stats and skills the character has, the player picks a starting class or career that fits it best, and then generates the character’s formative years up to young adulthood. What’s special about the Coming-of-Age system is the career path. Where other career-based systems have career paths built into the character generation process, in this approach they’re part of the experience and advancement system. This gives you all the flexibility of a career system, with
the young characters and “advance-as-you-go” mechanics of a class-based system.
As players, we need to decide how we want to approach the campaign. If we want to come out loaded for bear, a career-based character generation system is the best system for us. The class-based system, on the other hand, is more suited to those of us who want to see the full range of character growth. If you want the best of both worlds, try Warhammer Fantasy or something like it.